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ANGEL goes out in style with a marvelous final season
on November 3, 2004
Warning: Many, many spoilers!
All good things must come to an end, and unfortunately with Season Five of ANGEL we saw not only the end of one of the great series that TV has produced, but the end of Joss Whedon's Slayerverse. With Whedon's recent announcement that he was closing Mutant Enemy's offices and that he does not intend to do another television show in the foreseeable future, this truly is the end of an era. At least we have 144 episodes of BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER and 110 episodes of ANGEL to remember these remarkable artistic creations by. And meanwhile we can all hope that Joss will reconsider and decide that he does have another set of stories to tell.
After very nearly getting cancelled at the end of Season Four, the WB renewed ANGEL with the understanding that the show would try to move more towards a format where each episode stood alone (though they did manage to sneak in some great storylines along the way) as well as bringing James Marster's Spike over from BUFFY to try and bring some of that audience over. Artistically, Season Five is a huge rebound from the disappointing Season Four, with a large number of stunning individual episodes, a number of shocking plot developments, and some powerful storylines. I never did feel completely at ease with Angel and Co. taking over the running of the evil law firm of hell, Wolfram and Hart, but despite that they managed to do some amazing things. One reason I didn't like the Wolfram and Hart connection was the presence of the specially treated pane glass windows, which allowed vampires Angel, Spike, and Harmony to bask in sunlight without fear of combustion. But ANGEL was metaphorically always about being in the shadows, and I felt that visually the show didn't work as well in the light. But this was one of my only complaints with the season. The other was that some of the characters didn't receive quite the attention that they deserved. Even Angel moved somewhat out of the center at the beginning of the season, as Spike was brought in and established as a central character, though by mid-season he clearly was once again the star of the show. Wesley, who I always found to be the most interesting character on the show, was far less crucial to the plot for most of the season. Gunn for the most part was relegated to bit parts, while Lorne had almost no role to play at all. On the other hand, Fred became far more important, of which more in a second. Harmony, always a secondary character on BUFFY, became a permanent cast member and managed to inject some comic relief as Angel's secretary, though they didn't have time to blend her fully into the mix. After the initial jar of seeing Spike in L.A. rather than Sunnydale, he managed to become a great addition to the show, and one of the great regrets of the failure of ANGEL to get renewed for Season Six was the wonderful team that he and ANGEL made by season's end.
The season saw a great number of remarkable individual episodes. One of my favorites was "Lineage," where Wesley managed to confront his father (or what passes for his father) in what is one of the most stunning scenes in the five seasons of the show. "Smile Time," written by TICK creator Ben Edlund, was arguably the funniest show in the history of the series, when Angel is transformed magically into a two-foot tall felt puppet. His assault of Spike when the latter makes fun of him and their ensuing fight is one of the great absurd moments I've ever seen on TV. I also enjoyed the episodes that dealt with the demise of Fred and the ascendance and development of Illyria.
Just over halfway through the season, fans of the show were shocked beyond comprehension when one of the major and most popular characters, Fred, the geeky but beautiful scientist whom Angel had rescued from another dimension, died, her body being taken over by a powerful ancient demon Illyria. Although fans were initially angered by her demise, most quickly came to be fascinated by the demon who took over her body, and her bizarre relationship with Wesley, Fred's erstwhile lover, who hesitatingly helped her to live in a world she found completely alien. We know from Jeff Bell, ANGEL's executive producer, that in Season Six they planned to have the apparently dead Fred resurrected by Willow from BUFFY, who was to appear as a guest star. In Season Five we learn that there are remnants of Fred in Illyria, and Fred was apparently going to retrieve Fred, while leaving Illyria alive, allowing Amy Acker to play a double role. The possibilities in that would have been remarkable. For instance, Illyria retained many of Fred's memories, including the fact that she loved Wesley. Illyria had achieved a strange attraction of her own to Wesley, and one can only imagine how she would have responded to seeing Fred and Wesley together. Illyria's attachment to Wesley led to perhaps the most moving moment of the entire season, when Illyria, who could manage an absolutely perfect impersonation of Fred when she needed to, asked a dying Wesley if she wanted her to "lie" to him (i.e., pretend to be Fred). After he says, with a smile on his face, yes, she tries to comfort him by telling him that he is going to be with her very shortly. Immediately after he dies, the sorcerer who killed Wesley, regaining consciousness but not realizing that he was talking to a powerful demon and not a "little girl," tells her to take her best shot at him. She does, and in the season's best visual image, the "little girl" spins, throwing a fist at the sorcerer's head, transforming from human to her demon form as she throws a punch at his head, completely shattering his skull (something a mere human was not capable of doing).
The show ended with an utterly remarkably episode entitled "Not Fade Away" (which references great the Buddy Holly song later covered by both the Rolling Stones and the Grateful Dead). The controversial but to me very beautiful and appropriate ending expressed everything that the show was about. Ultimately, the series was about a man (or vampire) who had more to repent of than he would ever find forgiveness for. He had, therefore, more or less devoted his entire existence to the process of atonement, which the show finally interrupts as an ongoing struggle and not a mere event. As Angel, Illyria, Spike, and a severely injured Gunn rendezvous in an alley in the midst of a heavy downpour, they find themselves being approached by a huge group of demons, including a towering giant and a dragon. The odds look (and possibly are) impossible, but after saying that he wants to slay the dragon, Angel says to the remnants of his team, "Let's get to work." And with those words the episode and the series abruptly ends. I can't imagine a more perfect end. (April 2005 addition: In a new interview, Amy Acker says that Joss Whedon told her that Illyria at least would have survived the fight.)
The WB announced the cancellation ANGEL immediately after their 100th episode. What followed was the most extraordinary campaign to save a show in television history. Fans undertook a large food drive in the show's name, organized blood drives, mailed tens of thousands of post cards, sent cakes to the corporate offices, and even hired a billboard trick to drive around Hollywood, all to no avail. There had been hopes for some made for TV movies and recently it was rumored that the new head of the WB wanted to revive ANGEL for Season Six. But star David Boreanaz and other performers had gone on to other projects, and then came the horrible announcement from Joss Whedon that he was not at present going to work on TV. We can hope that he might change his mind at some point in the future, but I, for one, am profoundly grateful for the two remarkable shows that he gave us. Unlike THE X-FILES, which while brilliant was never able to present a coherent or intelligible narrative about the world it was attempting to narrate, BUFFY and ANGEL gave us not only a tremendous set of characters and a great series of narratives, but a world mythology that was rounded, complete, and convincing. Joss Whedon and his associates raised the bar of what could be done in the medium of television, and as we see new shows like LOST attempting to work along the same paths, we will hopefully continue to benefit in the future from his great vision that started with a petite blonde vampire slayer and ended with a rumble in an alley.